RIPOSTES: Nohoudh PhD scholar Farrah Sheikh weighs in on “What’s going wrong in the public discourse on British Muslims?” Featuring Prof. Mona Siddiqui and Omar Khan

By Myriam Francois|July 29, 2015|Ripostes|0 comments

Speaker’s corner is a comment section of the MuslimWise blog which aims to provide young scholars with the space to reflect and discuss issues raised either in the media, or in the “Question Time” section of the blog.

Nohoudh PhD scholar Farrah Sheikh weighs in:

I welcome the opportunity to chime in with my thoughts on this important discussion. Omar Khan has already highlighted the challenges (and frustrations) for researchers in this field. Rigorous academic research, careful analysis, longitudinal studies, statistics documenting racism, religious and racial penalties, disproportionate use of police powers towards people of colour and Muslims, rising intolerance of Islam and Islamophobia have all been discarded by the PM, focusing instead, on an approach based on conspiracy theories, is dismissive of valid grievances, and threatens to overrule personal values and free speech in favour of state-defined British values, setting a difficult scene in which Muslim communities can thrive. Prof Siddiqui asks the very valid question of Islam’s place in liberal democracies and the need for Muslims to be intellectually inquisitive. From my perspective, I believe that age-old racial and religious prejudice, and notions of White British cultural superiority rooted in Britain’s colonial past are shaping much of the discourse.


As David Cameron laid out his plans to counter terrorism and radicalization, he also set the lens through which Britain’s Muslim communities were to be viewed through over the next five years. One could argue that with his focus on everything from terror to forced marriages, he also entrenched racism and Islamophobia at the institutional level as he questioned the need for cultural sensitivity and concerns over causing offence when applying British values and liberalism.


One wonders why, in a speech about extremism and radicalisation the issue of cultural practice was raised over and over again?  Whilst the PM highlighted two extremely harmful practices, FGM and forced marriages (lets hope he can differentiate between forced marriage and consensual arranged marriages discussed between potential couples, families and matchmakers), I feel it is fair to ask what either had to do with radicalisation and terrorism? It adds toxicity to the existing discourse around Muslims and minority communities and in this case, unfairly links the former to issues that are not mainstream to Muslim communities. It almost feels like the PM used his speech on terrorism to air out his own list of grievances against British minorities.


FGM, a practice found in a variety of African (and not necessarily Muslim) cultures is already being challenged by women from affected communities, most notably Leyla Hussain has been at the forefront of the anti-FGM campaign. It is a practice almost unheard of amongst South Asian Muslims, British Asian or otherwise. Forced marriages are certainly not a Muslim-specific problem, found in many Asian cultures, both Muslim and non-Muslim. The incredibly brave Jaswinder Sanghera set up Karma Nirvana in 1993 to support victims of forced marriages and honour-based violence after being disowned by her own Sikh family for rejecting a forced marriage in her early teens. The point here is not to dismiss these issues as unimportant or sidestep responsibility for when they do occur in Muslim communities but to highlight that in dismissing diverse community efforts at tackling these very grave social ills, Cameron contributes to the further division of our society, painting Muslims as a problem community engaged in backward cultural practices in need of a healthy dose of British values to ‘fix’ them.


Whilst Omar Khan and Prof Siddiqui have laid out many important issues for us to consider, I would like to explore the PM’s plans to govern Britain as ‘one nation’ where despite our religious and cultural differences, we will all share British values as our common factor. At the same time he asked why being culturally sensitive mattered so much?


In a globalized world where few monocultural countries (if any) exist, I am interested to understand how the PM plans to bring us together especially in a country like ours, made up of 4 nations (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – 5 nations if you want to consider Catholic and Protestant Northern Irish communities separately) and devolved power. Does becoming ‘one nation’ mean that we will finally discuss Anglo-Scottish animosity? Or the enslavement of the Irish through forced indentured labour, England blocking aid during the Potato Famine? Can we finally talk about the pain brought about during the colonisation, partitions, mandates and decolonisation of South Asia, Africa and the modern Middle East? Minority communities did not appear in the UK overnight, they are the product and lasting legacy of Britain’s history of war, colonisation, slavery and commercial adventures.


If, in employing his ‘one nation’ rhetoric, the PM plans to construct a genuine and honest narrative that challenges Britain and its people to think about its past differently, to acknowledge that for the vast majority of her non-white (and even non-Anglican) communities, history has not been kind, and that as soon as Britain widened her territories, encompassing people of colour from different countries as her subjects, their cultures were also absorbed by Britain. Minority cultures became ‘British’ over time by virtue of their presence in this country.


However, with the focus on applying British values ‘uniformly’ this is unlikely to happen any time soon. This ‘one nation’ rhetoric appears to be another attempt at social engineering, only this time not through multiculturalism but through a process of homogenization and assimilation using British values as the main tools in this process.


The discourse on British values fails to acknowledge minority communities, and in this case, Muslim communities as equal citizens with valuable cultural capital to offer the world. They continue to be painted as an unenlightened people who must accept and embody liberalism in order to be accepted as part of the mainstream. An interesting question for the PM is whether he believes that liberalism is the answer to the deep health, social, educational, financial, racial and ethnic inequalities faced by minority communities all over the country, including Muslims?


Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her/his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of SOAS or the CIS.

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About Myriam Francois

This is the official blog for the SOAS-CIS. It aims to encourage scholars to debate and engage with the wider public on the basis of their research and will foster discussions about mainly UK and also European Integration discourse as relates to Islam and British Muslims. We tweet @SoasCis

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